Back to website

Independent May 18 2004

UN backs GM crops despite concerns that benefits do not reach the world's poor

By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor

18 May 2004

Genetically modified crops were given a cautious endorsement as a means of solving world hunger by the UN's food agency yesterday, in a move that will prolong the controversy over GM technology.

The backing, from the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), is at variance with the views of many leading aid agencies, which say that such claims made for GM are misleading.

The FAO was at pains to point out that benefits from GM developments had still not reached small farmers or the world's poor, because the technology was so far concentrated on a few lucrative cash crops such as soya beans, rather than on staples such as potatoes. But it gave a favourable view of GM as a whole.

Its report - "Agricultural Biotechnology: Meeting the Needs of the Poor?" - continues the UN's position of recognising the potential of transgenic crops to help fight world hunger, while stressing that case-by-case studies were needed to assess the risks. Its general view of the subject, however, is positive.

It says that GM crops currently on the market are safe to eat, and notes that scientists disagree on their environmental impact - accepting genes from GM crops can be transferred to wild species. However, it says scientists differ on whether that in itself is a bad thing, and says that what is needed most is more research to asses the environmental consequences of the so-called "gene flow."

The report also points out environmental and health benefits from GM crops, claiming that an associated reduction in pesticides and toxic herbicides has had "demonstrable health benefits" for farm workers in China.

In addition, it says some GM crops, especially insect-resistant cotton, "are yielding significant economic gains to small farmers." It notes that while private companies have been largely responsible for selling transgenic seeds, "it is the producers and consumers who are reaping the largest share of the economic benefits of transgenic crops," adding: "This suggests that the monopoly position engendered by intellectual property protection does not automatically lead to excessive industry profits."

Dr Harwig de Haen, assistant director-general of FAO's economic and social department, said yesterday that biotechnology was not a panacea to fight world hunger, but it could help in three major ways: by raising farmers' production and incomes, by increasing food supplies and thus reducing prices, and by contributing to the nutritional quality of crops.

But he said greater regulation was needed, and that governments, not just private corporations, must be more involved in the research and development of new seeds to ensure the poor benefit. "FAO believes that biotechnology, including genetic engineering, can benefit the poor, but that the gains are not guaranteed," he told a news conference.

The views of some of the world's leading aid agencies are far more sceptical. Eighteen months ago Britain's top aid charities told Tony Blair that genetically modified foods would not solve world hunger, but might increase poverty and malnutrition.

A submission signed by the directors of Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, Cafod and Action Aid said claims that GM crops could feed the world were "misleading and fail to address the complexities of poverty reduction". The charities said that GM crops were likely to create more poverty, pointing out that hunger was not caused by a shortage of food, but because the poor could not afford to buy it; and it was rich farmers who tended to take up new agricultural techniques.

They feared that introducing GM technology would have catastrophic effects because it is dominated by a few multinational companies. Salil Sheehy, the director of Action Aid, said at the time: "Farmers will be caught in a vicious circle, increasingly dependent on a small number of giant multinationals." Prince Charles, a noted GM opponent, said that the argument GM would feed the world was "suspiciously like emotional blackmail".

Yesterday's FAO report does squarely address the fact that the poor have not yet felt any GM benefits. It says that the private sector is so far focusing too much on technology for crops that benefit big commercial interests, such as maize, soybean, canola (oilseed rape in England) and cotton - the four main transgenic crops, which are engineered for only two traits, insect-resistance and herbicide-tolerance.

Basic food crops for the poor, such as cassava, potato, rice and wheat have received little attention from scientists, it says. These are "orphan crops", not favoured by the $3 billion a year spent by business on research into agricultural biotechnology.

"Other barriers that prevent the poor from accessing and fully benefiting from modern biotechnology include inadequate regulatory procedures, complex intellectual property issues, poorly functioning markets and seed-delivery systems and weak domestic breeding capacity," said Jacques Diouf, the FAO's head.

Last year six countries accounted for 99 per cent of the total planted area of GM crops: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, South Africa and the United States. In many countries, especially in Europe, food safety and environmental fears have held back the spread of GM, and earlier this month the cause suffered a blow when Monsanto, the US agribusiness giant which is the leader in the field, pulled out completely from the development of GM wheat after European flour millers said they would not accept it.

Greenpeace activists dressed as pantomime cows occupied part of the London headquarters of supermarket giant Sainsbury's yesterday, claiming that the company supplies milk from cows fed on genetically modified animal feed.